Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics (U.S. law) 

What is a copyright?  It is a limited monopoly given to authors/creators of intellectual property to control uses of their work.

Why was copyright created? The Constitutional purpose of copyright is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by giving authors/creators a limited monopoly over uses of their work .  The enrichment of authors/creators is a secondary goal.
• Fundamentals: Copyright protection
        - Applies to works in every media format.
        - Arises automatically (no action required) as soon as
                →   an original work (writing, photo, song, movie, etc.)
                →   is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

        - The © notice is no longer required for works created after 1989.

        - Works do not need to be published or registered in order to be fully protected by copyright.               

        - But, registration with the U.S. Copyright Office will affect amount of damages recoverable.

         Your default assumption should be that most works you encounter are copyrighted.
• What is meant by "giving the author a limited monopoly?" 

The Constitution recognizes that intellectual property is fundamentally different than other types of property because for society to advance, people need to be able to access and use protected materials.  We move forward by building upon what has been done before.  However, creators should be given incentives to produce new works.  Copyright law tries to balance the needs of society to access and use protected works with the need to incentivize and reward creators.

Therefore, Congress was empowered to create (copyright) laws designed to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."  Note that progress of science and the useful arts is explicitly stated, in the U.S. Constitution, to be the primary purpose of copyright.  It is not, as is often asserted, to enrich the copyright holder. 

Additionally, the law includes other important limitations on the exclusive rights of the holder, even during the copyright term, for essential uses such as education, parody, news reporting, criticism, and commentary.

 These are the exclusive rights granted to a copyright holder:

  • To reproduce the work (copy)
  • To make derivative works (modify or base your work on it)
  • To distribute the work
  • To publicly perform the work
  • To publicly display the work
  • To publicly perform a sound recording by digital transmission

 Limitations, particularly relevant to education, on these exclusive rights include:

  • Limited duration
  • Fair Use
  • Classroom and online performance and display (addessed elsewhere)
  • Certain library uses (addressed elsewhere)

How long does a copyright last (limited duration)?

A copyright does not last forever.  However, determining whether a copyright term has expired can be difficult due to numerous changes to copyright law over the years.  In addition to works whose copyright term has expired, the following works are in the public domain:

  • Works created by federal government employees with the scope of their employment;
  • Works published in the U.S. before 1923;
  • Works that failed to comply with required formalities, when required (e.g., no © notice before 1989).

The term of copyright: